Mustafa Akbar came up in the Eighteenth Street Lounge scene in Washington, D.C. in the mid ‘90s. “The Lounge,” as he calls it, is actually one of Teddy Roosevelt’s old mansions. Perched upon DC’s 18th Street abreast of iconic Dupont Circle, the multi-level enclave became Thievery Corporation’s stomping grounds and home to ESL Music, an incubator of DC funk and soul infused electronica and global force in downtempo music.
It was 2001 when ESL artists Thunderball debuted Akbar signing on their album Scorpio Rising. The album released on September 11th, 2001– imagine how bittersweet, yet somewhat fitting for a D.C. label whose output includes poignant political anthems like “Amerimacka” and “The Richest Man in Babylon.” Notwithstanding, Akbar’s debut on ESL set the stage for features on numerous recordings, collaborating with artists, producers and record labels the world over, including numerous appearances on Kraak and Smaak’s Jalapeno Records. He’s since formed his own group, Nappy Riddem, a conscious reggae band supported by Fort Knox Five’s record label Fort Knox Recordings, who’ve logged yearly performances for DC’s National Cannabis Festival. And today, Akbar has a new single out, “Trust,” debuting on Brooklyn indie music imprint SpinSpinNYC.
An incredibly talented singer, some may say on par with, and even reminiscent of, the greatest soul legends (Curtis Mayfield often comes to mind), Akbar uses his voice to reach well beyond the realm of music. An advocate, artist, friend and lover—from all angles, he’s a multitalented and multifaceted person with much to say, and even more to sing about.
HIGH TIMES had the pleasure of chatting with Akbar to talk about the future of cannabis, touring, his latest collaborations, cannabis activism, and life in and around Washington having launched a career from the heart of Thievery Corporation’s DC legacy.
There’s a rich history of Thievery Corporation and ESL Music and the artists and labels that have spawned from it. What was your intro into that?
I hung at “the Lounge” as we called it, but it’s the 18th St. Lounge to everyone else. I moved to DC. In the early ‘90s from Philadelphia and became really good friends with my neighbors Arthur “Rootz” Steele and Archie “Zeebo” Steele. They were, and still are, in a funk and soul reggae group called See-I. Both Roots and Zeebo would go on to become vocalists for what would eventually become Thievery Corporation. Zeebo’s oldest son Salem, who was maybe 11 at the time, would play keyboards as Rootz, and Z and I would freestyle and build songs together. Zeebo actually helped renovate the 18th St. Lounge and recorded in what became known as the ESL studio. And yes, the Lounge was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s cribs.
This is when I met Eric Hilton and Rob Garza of Thievery Corporation. I was asked to work security at an after hours club they owned around the corner from the Lounge called Red. In my opinion, it was the one of the coolest spots in the city. While working at Red, I met Steve Raskin and Sid Barcelona, also known as Thunderball, who were DJs at Red on Wednesday nights. They were signed to ESL Music, as well. Jon Horvath, Thunderball’s manager and another DJ there on Wednesday nights, happened to overhear me singing one evening and flipped out. He said, “Damn man, your voice is dope. Would you be interested in recording some music with Thunderball?” I said, “Maybe” [laughs]. Shortly after that, we wrote and recorded “Heart Of The Hustler” for the Scorpio Rising album on ESL Music.
You notice any significant changes to DC since legalization?
The vibe in legal DC is pretty cool. It’s kinda like being on tour in Colorado where people just casually burn weed and the cops don’t care. Most cops didn’t care about you smoking weed anyway, to be honest.
Legalization is making real waves in this country. What influence has cannabis had on your life and music?
Ganja. I started smoking weed when I was about 11 and I never looked back. They say it’s a gateway drug, but I never had the desire for anything else, except better weed [laughs]. When I first moved to DC, I had no idea that herb would become legal here. But, once the conversation began, I got right behind it. I believe it will become legal nationwide, but we’re probably going to have to suffer four years of roadblocks considering the current administration. Herb’s influenced my art, my music, my circle of friends and probably my choice of lovers—I really don’t care to spend a lot of time with women who frown at ganja smoking because I enjoy it so much. Baby, don’t make me choose between you and good weed. I’m gonna choose good weed. Trust me!
For 4/20, there’s a ‘smoke-in’ and a weed giveaway happening on Capitol Hill this year to destigmatize and advocate for federal reform. Would you consider yourself an advocate for cannabis law reform?
Federal reform is inevitable, but I am anxious to see the response of the current administration to the ‘smoke in’ on Capitol Hill. I had a crazy car accident on November 15, 2016, in which I broke eight vertebrae, three ribs and dislocated my shoulder. I was able to minimize the use of narcotics by using marijuana products, and my doctors were amazed at how quickly I’ve been healing and how little I depend on pain meds. Although I still have pain, the ganja eases it tremendously. Hopefully, in the future I will be pain free. In the meantime, I’ll smoke more weed.
What’s the D.C. National Cannabis Festival (NCF) like?
Last year, my band Nappy Riddem played the inaugural National Cannabis Festival here in DC with De La Soul and we played the NCF mini concert here in DC last month. I am definitely going to be at the festival this year, hanging out partying with Pharcyde. I’ll be recuperating from a raging night of reggae music at Gypsy Sally’s with Nappy Riddem, Talking Dread and Higher Education. With the release of my new single “Trust” on 4/20, our show at Gypsy Sally’s in DC on 4/21, and the National Cannabis Festival on 4/22, it’s going to be a blast.
What’s one of your most memorable experiences imbibing cannabis?
I was in NYC, shooting the “One World Sovereignty” video with Nappy Riddem during the Occupy Wall Street movement. I had been smoking premium weed on the ride up from DC After consuming edibles; I realized I was starting to trip as I was standing with a group of New York’s finest. I started vibing out on the lights in Times Square and was no longer interested in shooting the video. The flashing lights and sounds of the city overwhelmed me, until we got back to the van. It was parked in front of a Scientology temple. That completely killed my buzz!
Your new solo EP is a project with Nutritious and his label SpinSpinNYC. How did this collaboration come to life?
“Trust” is my first solo release in a few years and it has me excited. For one reason, it’s because I branched out a little. I linked up with my bredren Nutritious, whom I met some years back in New York during a Fort Knox Five performance in NYC. In the subsequent years, we rapped a lot about doing some work together. I had this track that I recorded with my boy Tony Ozier out in Portland, Oregon, that needed a home. Nutritious heard it and dug it, so we decided to get some remixes done and release it on SpinSpinNYC. I reached out to a friend in Canada, brother JPOD, who is a wicked young producer I’ve worked with in the past. And Nutritious brought on Commodore (½ of Renegade Masters, Nervous Records alumni). It’s gonna be a dope release.
You produce your own music festival, Mustock…
It’s a private music festival I started doing 18 years ago. I bring out a bunch of artists, bands, vendors, DJs, campers, party people, and irie vibes for three days and nights of music and family fun. It’s usually held the last weekend in July. I hold the event on my mother’s ancestral land out in Lignum, Virginia. This year, it happens to be Friday, July 28th through Sunday, July 30th. Check out Mustock’s Facebook page for ticket information. Come on out! You’ll love it.
What’s on the horizon for Mustafa Akbar?
Stay tuned. I’m recording a new solo album as well as a new Nappy Riddem album. There’s new Thunderball, Fort Knox Five, Basement Freaks and much more music coming at you as well. I’ve got to keep on dancing because music is my life!
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